Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

     He is a black hit man working for the white Italian mafia in a modern American city and he follows the way of ancient Japanese samurai. He speaks only English, but his best friend is an ice cream man who speaks only French. He has mystical abilities which include an eerie power over animals--for instance, he has trained a group of pigeons to carry messages for him, and they seem to appear wherever and whenever he needs them. He lives in a broken-down shed on the roof of an apartment building, but he owns a whole pile of expensive, high-tech gadgets and weaponry. He moves among the shadows, invisible and completely silent, and kills effortlessly.

     His name is Ghost Dog, and he is the title character of Jim Jarmusch's newest film, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. He is played by Forest Whitaker, whom you may remember from such films as Platoon, Bird, and Species. But you probably don't remember Jim Jarmusch. He's the talented writer/director of such films as Dead Man (starring Johnny Depp), Year of the Horse (a documentary about Neil Young's 1997 tour), and Night on Earth (starring Roberto Benigni, creator of Life Is Beautiful and the most excited man at the last two Oscar ceremonies; he also appeared in Jarmusch's Down By Law). And you've most likely never heard of him. That's because he, too, like the characters in his movies, is a weird, mystical misfit. Unlike a certain "independent" studio (cough--Miramax!--cough) he hasn't sold out yet--he's still a dyed-in-the-wool independent filmmaker. Unfortunately that means that his movies are in the same boat as foreign films when it comes to popularity, box office receipts, advertising and distribution--it's been almost a full year since Ghost Dog's release at the Cannes film festival (where it earned a nomination for the Golden Palm), and the movie has only just now started to show up in American theaters outside of New York and Los Angeles.

     But Ghost Dog is worth the wait. It's a highly entertaining, thought-provoking, and funny film. That funniness is due mainly to Jarmusch's knack for creating characters that are ridiculously odd, and yet at the same time very familiar, very recognizable, and very human.

     The head of the mafia family that Ghost Dog works for is a man named Mr. Vargo (Henry Silva, who I am convinced is a fine character actor, despite the fact that in his long career he has been in perhaps only one good movie, including this one). He is a man of honor and of very few words. He has a daughter named Louise (Tricia Vessey), but she is disconnected from the world, and he is disconnected from her. The only thing they have in common is that they both like watching cartoons.

     Like Ghost Dog, Vargo is a misfit, an outsider, a representative of a way of life whose grandeur is long since gone. He and his fellow aging mobsters meet together in the back of a Chinese restaurant and are hassled by their landlord for the rent money. When Vargo and the other bosses decide that Ghost Dog must die (as an act of false vengeance for a hit that they ordered him to perform), they send two men up to his shack on the roof to kill him. But the gunmen are so old and out of shape that they barely make it up the steps and end up bungling the job. (Jarmusch fans will enjoy the cameo in this scene by Gary Farmer, who played Nobody in Dead Man).

     Ghost Dog, though his code, too, is an ancient one, and seemingly out of place in the modern streets of an American city, is far more effective and adept than the aging gangsters. He's also far cooler. When he needs transportation he simply finds the nearest Lexus and presses a button on one of his electronic gadgets--the doors magically unlock, the engine starts, and then he goes cruising through the streets playing rap music extremely loudly on the CD player.

     So how did a black samurai who uses guns instead of swords come to be employed by the Italian mafia? Well, the truth is Ghost Dog doesn't really consider himself a contract killer for the mafia. He sees himself as the retainer of a man named Louie (John Tormey) who just happens to be a part of "the family." Louie saved Ghost Dog's life when he was young, so Ghost Dog swore to him, and to him alone, an oath of service. When Louie is ordered by his bosses to help them kill Ghost Dog, he feels torn between his loyalty for the mafia and for the young man whose life he once saved. But Ghost Dog has no such conflicting feelings. He has only one master and one duty, and they are always clear to him.

     Ghost Dog seems to have few friends besides Louie, if Louie can even be classified as a friend. But during the film he meets a young black girl named Pearline (Camille Winbush) with whom he exchanges books and ideas; she becomes, in a way, his student. And his best friend is the French-speaking ice cream vendor named Raymond (Isaach De Bankol', who played one of the taxi drivers in Jarmusch's Night on Earth). By providing English subtitles for Raymond's French dialogue, Jarmusch gives us a unique and ironic perspective on this relationship, allowing we the audience to understand both parties even though they cannot understand each other. In fact we discover that they understand each other just fine even if they don't share a language; somehow one is always able to guess exactly what the other has said.

     At rather regular intervals throughout the film, we are presented with short passages from a book on the samurai philosophy. Each passage colors the following and preceding scenes with meaning, illuminating for us what is going on in Ghost Dog's mind, and teaching us a little bit of the way of the samurai. The thoughts and ideas that these passages express are often fascinating, and are sometimes even stunningly beautiful. And it is not only the power of the ideas themselves, but also partly the fact that they are so fresh and exotic that makes them so interesting and evocative. Like Ghost Dog. Like the film itself.

Jim Genzano

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